Vol 1 No 7 Fall/Winter 2002

The Professional Skills of Gypsies in Istanbul

by Udo Mischek

The following material was collected during my first visit to Istanbul from April until June 2002. I started to study groups of Gypsies settling in the city of Istanbul. As an ethnologist I used the method of participant observation to collect my first batch of notes. This field research is integrated into a broder context: the German universities of Leipzig and Halle have a collaborative research project called “Difference and integration: Interaction between nomadic and sedentary life forms in civilisations of the old world.”

The focus on the relationship between nomadic and sedentary people, rural and urban areas shapes my research in Istanbul as well. Although in the initial phase I was not able to detect as many travelling groups as I wished, this will be one of the aims of my next longer field trip in the following year.

Another focus of my present research project is to understand the close relationship between minority groups and their interaction with the surrounding majority. As in the case of Gypsy minority groups we find a close interaction with the majority. Especially in the economical sphere there was, and still is a field of co-operation and, as the older literature suggests this might be an extant phenomenon. For example historians of Ottoman history pointed out how Gypsy-blacksmiths were integrated into ship-building campaigns of the Ottoman navy (Faroqhi 2001). The Ottoman traveller and historian Evliya Celebi (1611-1684) mentioned Gypsies in his writings, where he described the guilds of handicrafts and artisans in 17th century Istanbul and noted those whose members were Gypsies.

In the same way the integration of Gypsies into another sphere is given by historians using Ottoman archival resources. The existence of Gypsy sancaks - army contingents - in the Ottoman army gives evidence that at least in some spheres of life Gypsies had been integrated. It might be argued that Gypsies were incorporated due to their skills. Either as part of the regular units or as craftsman supplying the troops with needy works (Streck 1996, Marushiakova/Popov 2001). Although in the present the professional skills are not required anymore for army purposes some of my male-informants pointed out, that they had been very proud of being members of army campaigns in the south eastern part of Turkey.

In contrast to these common fields of action between majority and minority many groups pay attention to their cultural separatness. This is demonstrated by using another language, drinking alcohol, debate and fight loudly in the street and playing with animals normally considered as impure. The arena of distinctiveness is the playing ground which I seek to decipher during my fieldwork and it is one, were the anthropologist stands alone, as in this sphere the historical facts are still silent.

But nevertheless historical material either from old travel literature - like Evliya Celebi - older gypsiologists – like the works of Alexandre Paspati – or students of Ottoman history - like Suraya Faroqhi – are a good starting point for my research. Using these sources, which sometimes mentioned Gypsies, I wondered whether the descriptions they gave or the conclusions they drew are still relevant for the life of this minority today. One of the points I discovered so far, is interesting to note: many of the quarters mentioned in the older literature (Halliday 1922) are still inhabited by Gypsy-groups. This is true for the quarters of Sulukule and Balat intra muros and for the quarters of Kasimpasa and Tophane outside the old townwall. Even some of the professions mentioned are performed here until today like some smiths, and other metal-workers in Tophane and dancers and amusement industry in Sulukule.

Contemporary Work of Gypsies in Istanbul

Although some of the traditonal Gypsy-crafts are still performed today, many now earn their money in the booming recycling industry. Either whole quarters make their living out of recycling or some families and individuals in nearly every part of the town.

There are still a lot of Gypsy musicans who play in the bars of Taksim or in the fish restaurants of Kumkapi. Still there are some Gypsy blacksmiths to be found. Most of them older men who know the art of horseshoe-making and who always ensured me, that today it is very hard to earn a living out of this profession. Due to the replacement of horses by cars there is not so much work to be done as formerly.

Another sector of the economical sphere which is nearly monopolised by Gypsy-groups is the selling of flowers in the streets. Whether this is an old activity or a newly occupied niche I am not able to say. Flower selling is a domain of the women and all over Istanbul women with their colourful equipment could be found. While some of these women sell flowers the whole year through others are occupied with to this profession only in the cold season, when the blossom last longer than in the summer and therefore the risk of loosing money is minimized.

Booming Sector: Recycling

The recycling sector is the major source of income for individuals and some groups as well. Collecting and selling rubbish is one of the main occupations. Many individuals and whole groups live on collecting and selling paper, different sorts of plastics and all sorts of metal to recycling firms.

The small township of Yayha-Kemal in the north of european Istanbul consisted of approximately 70 households where at least one member of the family was active in the recycling trade. Together with some neighbours one of the families bought a shredder for plastic to reduce the voluminous cola and water bottles they collected in the streets. One bag of shredded materials of 50 kg was equal 3 huge nets of unshredded plastic bottles. Twice a week a lorry came and the recycable waste was sold to the factory.

In another quarter where Gypsies lived on a variety of jobs some of the inhabitants were waste-collectors and one of the local men had a shop specialising in buying recycable goods from the street-collectors to sell in bulk to the factories. As his shop was near Taksim, where most bars are to be found, he never ran out of supply. A lot of the materials he resold were empty beer and wine bottles and of course plastic material. Formerly this man owned the right - which he bought from the municipality - to collect rubbish from one of the city`s waste dumps. But after an exploision were three of his employees were killed this contract was cancelled although as he assured me one could get real rich with this kind of work. Today he makes his living by reselling the collected materials and he earns enough money to pay two African employees and drive old American cars.

But as the recycling sector is booming – in contrast to other parts of the Turkish economy - it is not only occupied by Gypsies. Nevertheless Gypsies have in some cases a better starting position as they sometimes inherited shops and clients from their relatives as in the last mentioned case.


Whether one is allowed to label Gypsies as a subproletariat or underclass should be considered critical (Stewart 2002: 138). If the characteristics of this underclass are seen in their segregation from and their discrimination by the major society, the Istanbul case does not fit in the scheme.

As I mentioned above, the historical materials give evidence, that Gypsies in the Ottoman empire had long since been integrated in the economical and military sphere. And if one considers the present day conditions, there are some points which do not correspond with this labeling, as in Istanbul one finds in the majority of Gypsy quarters no segregation as it is the case in most other european cities. Instead in most cases the Gypsy houses are scattered in one quarter and do not form one contitious settlement cluster. And the economic sector as well shows, that Gypsies do not form a coherent underclass even when practising not very highly valued jobs in the recycling business.

I share the view of Michael Stewart who stated in one of his latest papers: „that Roma have resources of their own, and do not have to rely totally on the inspiration of outsiders to challenge their fate“ (Stewart 2000:148). But of course I do not want to neglect that poverty is one of the most striking problems Gypsies in Turkey have to cope with. This does not only mean that people have enough to eat and do not suffer from hunger it also means that they have equal access to resources like education, health service or jurisdiction.


Faroqhi, Suraya: Women`s work, Poverty and the Privileges of Guildsmen, in: Archiv orientalni, Praha 2001.
Halliday, W.R.: Some notes upon the Gypsies of Turkey, in: JGLS (3), 1, p.163-189.
Paspati, Alexandre: Études sur les Tchinghianés ou Bohémiens de l`empire ottoman, (Koromela) Constantinople 1870.
Stewart, Michael: Deprivation, the Roma and the `underclass`, in: Chris Hann (ed.) Postsocialism: ideologies and practices in Eurasia, (Routledge) London 2002.
Streck, Bernhard: Die Halab-Zigeuner am Nil, (Hammer) Wuppertal 1996.

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